Two things on the agenda today: a new Vintage deck and as this is my one-hundredth article for StarCityGames.com a look back at my favorite submissions from the past two years.
If you've run into me at recent Vintage events you may have heard me say “I want to play Vintage Reanimator!”
The response to this idea was tepid at best.
“It's just a worse Dredge deck!”
“Why play a graveyard deck in a format full of graveyard hate?”
“That deck has never been good enough; why would it be good enough now?”
“Elias… you crazy man. You crazy.”
When the DCI restricted Thirst for Knowledge in Vintage they also unrestricted four cards: Crop Rotation Enlightened Tutor Entomb and Grim Monolith. I've seen all of those cards in top eights here and there with the possible exception of Entomb. I have to believe this is related to Bazaar of Baghdad-fueled Dredge which itself has mostly superseded other graveyard decks such as Hermit Druid combo or Worldgorger Dragon combo. What would Reanimator offer the Vintage world that Dredge doesn't do better?
Back to this question in a moment.
I've tested a lot of Oath decks recently and over and over again I found that there are some matchups that are intolerably difficult. With Elephant Oath beating Trygon Tezz is exceptionally hard and despite a reasonable Workshop matchup sometimes you still just “lose” to that deck anyway. Tyrant Oath powered by Gush offers a more reasonable blue matchup at the expense of a worse Workshop matchup in my experience. GG Oath has tested quite well against non-Gush decks but has many of the same weaknesses of Elephant Oath against splash damage from Workshop hate (such as Trygon Predator and Nature's Claim).
Perhaps the main challenge in building Oath is in determining the creature base and resulting strategy based on what one expects to see play on the other side of the table. Tyrant Oath needs spells to power its namesake card while Elephant Oath uses a spread of creatures that are great in some instances but terrible in others; GG Oath attempts to avoid this problem by playing creatures that just win immediately. All of these ideas have strengths and weaknesses.
This brings us to Reanimator: what does a Reanimator strategy offer that Oath does not? Well for one thing when using Entomb you get to pick the appropriate creature from those in your library rather than flipping into one at random. So against blue decks you can get the Iona you really want but against Shops you can get the Sphinx or Terastodon you want. You also can get it right now rather than having to play out Oath and pass the turn. Your strategy is just as live against opponents using creatures as against those who do not whereas Oath would prefer that opponents play creatures so that it isn't forced to find Forbidden Orchard. Stated simply you get much of the power of Oath without being vulnerable to Oath hate cards and you can treat your creatures like a toolbox.
And unlike Dredge Reanimator is a strategy that pays mana for spells and interacts beyond the realm of free or one-mana spells. This means that you have an array of options available to fight back against hate including Null Rod Force of Will Spell Pierce Thoughtseize Pithing Needle Nature's Claim Hurkyl's Recall Show and Tell and Steel Sabotage.
To bring this back full circle I was testing GG Oath against R&D teammate Brad Granberry who was playing a deceptively powerful Gush Time Vault deck (which I discussed last week). The Gush deck was definitely favored pre-board as I was often able to resolve Oath only to watch Brad untap and win the game via Tendrils or Key/Vault before Oath triggered. Threat density was another problem. In GG Oath Jace the Mind Sculptor did not seem to be the game-ending bomb that he was in Tyrant or Elephant Oath. Tyrant Oath is able to leverage the Jace TMS advantage into the Gush/Bond engine while Elephant Oath is set up as more of a “true” control deck often playing Mana Drains and using Jace to create enough leverage to take over the game.
I started talking to Brad about Reanimator and immediately he suggested that we introduce a Reanimator package into a Vintage Oath deck. The wheels in my mind were turning in the opposite direction: what if we introduced an Oath package into the sideboard of a Legacy-style Reanimator deck? Brad and I broke for a few minutes and sketched out our decks and set about testing them.
Coming at the design angle from the Vintage side Brad's deck included four Oaths and four Forbidden Orchards with four creatures. He had a smaller package on the Reanimator side playing four Entombs four Reanimates and two each of Exhume and Careful Study. As a Vintage deck he was playing Yawgmoth's Will Tinker and a full set of fast mana including all five Moxen Black Lotus Sol Ring and Mana Crypt. He had a total of twenty-four mana sources and his disruption package was four Spell Pierces four Forces of Will.
I approached the deck from the Legacy angle removing one creature three Dazes and three Brainstorms from my Legacy deck and manipulating from there. I added staples like Time Walk and Ancestral Recall as well as tutors like Mystical Tutor Vampiric Tutor and Demonic Tutor where I had been playing Preordain in Legacy. I kept the mana count relatively light at twenty sources including only Mox Jet Mox Sapphire Mox Emerald Lotus Petal and Black Lotus. I did not play Yawgmoth's Will. I tried the deck with a Bazaar of Baghdad and started with only two Oaths of Druids and one Forbidden Orchard in the maindeck. Conceptually I intended to use this as a transform strategy sidestepping graveyard hate by turning into Oath of Druids post-board where Brad wanted to leverage both strategies immediately.
We started testing our rough lists and immediately found both had merit. Brad's deck pummeled Trygon Tezz as it was ill-equipped to stop Iona in game one. My deck performed well against Gush Control again with Iona carrying the day. Against Workshops the matchup was much closer but this deck plays no hate for Workshops in the maindeck so an even matchup is actually rather impressive pre-board and things improve from there. The ability to spit out Oath of Druids quickly and to continue to Oath for more turns than a normal Oath deck proved very powerful.
I began to tighten up my version of the deck; slowly per Brad's prodding I moved up to a full set of Oath and Orchard giving me a more flexible and well-rounded sideboard. We changed around the creature package. I started out with Platinum Emperion a carryover from the Legacy build. He's cute but not an auto-win against many decks in Vintage if any. More on this shortly.
I tried Blightsteel Colossus then moved it to the sideboard but right now I have it back in the main. Originally I didn't like how Colossus was a poor Oath target but as I've played the deck alternate “cheating cost” strategies like Tinker and Show and Tell proved their worth as they sidestep both Oath and graveyard hate. More than anything Blightsteel is simply better than Sphinx of the Steel Wind who really can't keep up in this metagame.
I liked playing a fifth creature as it supported Careful Study and the Show and Tell plan. We thought about Blazing Archon which had been in the sideboard for Dredge. Dredge has only Chain of Vapor to beat Blazing Archon so if you can play him out and protect him for a few turns you should be in great shape. Still Archon carries some serious drawbacks against the rest of the format. Archon can't attack effectively through Steel Hellkite which is annoying. Shop decks can “wait out” Archon pretty easily by establishing lock pieces and then pushing through a Duplicant. I wanted a guy who ended the game before we reached that situation. Also Archon is a relatively abysmal Oath reveal against most blue decks. Sticking an Oath only to reveal Archon then passing the turn? No thanks.
So what has a similar effect as Blazing Archon without presenting an exceptionally slow clock something that can attack through Hellkite?
Enter: Stormtide Leviathan. Take a look:
Originally I had wanted to try Stormtide Leviathan in Legacy Reanimator. This didn't work out because Merfolk exists. However I'd probably still consider playing one in that deck because it's rather effective against Goblins and that deck is quite popular at the moment… although one might argue that the popularity of Goblins more strongly suggests not playing Reanimator at all.
In Vintage Platinum Emperion was “cute” but hard to protect as you can't pay Force's alternate cost with him in play. This is another creature that “ported” over from Legacy into Vintage in that in Legacy he auto-beats some decks that a creature like Archon does not (such as Affinity with Disciple Merfolk and some Storm variants). He was more appealing to me than Platinum Angel since Angel only attacks for four damage a turn and Dredge is well-prepared to destroy Plats in games two and three.
Contrast this to Stormtide Leviathan which has a number of nice synergies with the deck. It makes Terastodon even better as you can destroy three permanents with essentially no drawback and Stormtide can attack right past them. He also ensures that Inkwell is unblockable even against non-blue decks. He wins the game in three swings but this will often be two swings against many decks (as most Vintage decks injure themselves these days via cards like Dark Confidant fetchlands Thoughtseize and so on). As a blue creature when in hand he “turns on” Force of Will. While Steel Hellkite can attack through his ability he is rather good at racing especially post-board where the artifact bounce/removal comes into play.
While all of this is conceptual I was pleasantly surprised with the card and how it worked in live games against Workshops. Having validated this as a reasonable creature against the rest of the field we then had a way to “lock out” Dredge game one right in the maindeck and found a way to play five reasonable creatures. There's something very freeing about being able to Oath against Workshops again and again and again rather than only a few times. It's much easier to escape from under a Tangle Wire when you add an outrageous creature to your board every single upkeep for four or five turns in a row. It's worth noting that Reanimating Stormtide is also a potential out against a quickly resolved Tinker into Blightsteel Colossus by an opponent another potentially relevant play.
This testing and discussion led to a maindeck that looks like the one you see below. I'm more excited about this deck than Ryan Glackin would be for a new Verizon smartphone made out of donuts!
So: What does this deck offer that Dredge does not? Well it has two avenues of attack far less reliance on the graveyard a stronger ability to defeat graveyard hate and considerably less likelihood of mulliganing to oblivion.
Let's take a look at the pieces of the deck and how they function together.
At its core this is a simple deck. All it wants to do is cheat a giant expensive monster into play very quickly without paying the mana cost. It has two separate engines that can make this happen. The easiest one is to play Oath of Druids. If the opponent is playing creatures resolving Oath will usually win the game. If they're not then Forbidden Orchard can generously provide a Spirit token to the opponent.
The other main option is to reanimate a creature that has been put into the graveyard typically via Entomb but sometimes through other means such as Careful Study. I've also resolved an Ancestral Recall to push my hand total above seven allowing me a freebie discard. That creature can then be returned to play using Reanimate or Exhume. While Reanimate is generally more powerful Chalice of the Void is common in Vintage so having options on one-mana and two-mana spells definitely matters; also Exhume lets you return a second creature to play when low on life and of course the use of tutors lets you find it in a pinch. You also have the ability to use Tinker or Show and Tell to get a creature into play.
Against most blue decks and Dark Ritual decks the objective is simply to get Iona into play quickly. Typically this means finding Entomb resolving it and then resolving Exhume or Reanimate. Entomb is an easy spell to resolve in Vintage; remember that you can play it in response to an opponent breaking a fetch to sidestep something like Mana Drain or Spell Pierce.
Thoughtseize Force and Spell Pierce are aggressive disruption spells that double as cheap protection spells making it possible to resolve your threats or try to knock the opponent's offline for a few turns. This is similar to the disruption package standard in Legacy Reanimator with Spell Pierce played instead of Daze; without supporting mana disruption as we see in Fish decks (such as Wasteland Null Rod and Stifle) Daze is not effective in Vintage due to the existence of permanent fast mana like Sol Ring Mana Crypt and the Moxen. While I've gone back and forth on Thoughtseize and Spell Pierce I believe Thoughtseize is the superior option in this deck.
This creature package delivers a number of bullets while covering a broad range of functions and each creature is a heavy hitter capable of ending the game quickly. As mentioned above Stormtide Leviathan blanks Dredge and is a great creature in the MUD matchup. Sphinx of the Steel Wind can recover life points lost using Reanimate and is strong against Workshops as well. Iona Shield of Emeria is capable of locking out most blue and Dark Ritual decks while Inkwell excels against decks that play Jace or other targeted bounce or removal. Finally Terastodon offers potent removal as well as the ability to create an instant army.
For a Vintage deck this is a relatively light load of “broken” restricted cards and omits Yawgmoth's Will and Tinker (from the main). I discussed Tinker above; this build runs it in the sideboard as an alternate win condition to beat graveyard and/or Oath of Druids hate. Will is omitted as there isn't much fast mana to recur and the deck runs a light load of mana. If our goal was to recur something Regrowth might be a better choice and in fact I go back and forth between wanting Merchant Scroll (to find Ancestral Recall Force of Will and Brainstorm) and Regrowth (to recur one of my action spells).
The mana base is pretty basic with the on-color Moxen six fetchlands chosen to hit the various basics we want against Workshops and four Orchards to power out Oath of Druids. Twenty-one mana sources is not outrageously low but certainly low compared to most current Vintage decks; this allows us to maintain a high threat density.
While I'm relatively happy with the maindeck the sideboard could probably use additional tuning. Crafting an effective sideboard for current Vintage is difficult; consider the six decks I faced on 1/15:
That's an Oath deck a Time Vault deck two wildly different Tendrils strategies MUD Aggro and a quasi-Fish deck. While I really like the BUG Tendrils deck I presented a few articles back as well as the Oath deck in my last article both struggle with certain matchups; on the power level scale of Vintage they are both “fair” decks relatively speaking. This deck is much less fair; it's designed to win through sheer power.
One key opponent however is Workshops. Many Workshop decks are playing a full set of Duplicants and some are playing Sculpting Steel on top. This means they have a lot of outs for what we're trying to achieve. They also often play a lot of graveyard hate and Null Rod is often not the best choice against Workshops (although it does do a nice job shutting down Metalworker).
Regardless this deck has a Forest Hurkyl's Recall Nature's Claim and two Steel Sabotages all dedicated to the Workshop matchup where in post-board games it's advisable to try and be more of an Oath deck supported by hate cards. Pithing Needle should also come in to combat Maze of Ith. In other words the majority of the sideboard is good against Workshops! You would want to side out all four Thoughtseizes and an Iona plus some portion of the Reanimator package. Your best and easiest bet against Workshops involves Oath and Tinker.
We have considered Null Rods for opposing blue decks and shutting down those whose hate focuses on Tormod's Crypt Nihil Spellbomb or Relic of Progenitus but at the moment they're not making the cut. The deck is already decently strong against opposing blue decks where you can play around graveyard hate by winning with Tinker Show and Tell and Oath of Druids while keeping opponents “honest” with a smaller Reanimator package. I would suggest siding out Stormtide Leviathan for Terastodon and some number of Exhume and Careful Study for Needle Nature's Claim and Show and Tell to beat hate; depending on the type of blue deck and what hate they show of course your plan will need to vary. Chains of Mephistopheles is specifically included to combat Gush. I'm testing two currently but may bump it up further as the card is a house against that archetype.
The Leyline of the Void Strip Mine Nihil Spellbomb and Pithing Needle are for the Dredge matchup and are pretty self-explanatory. This deck has a decent if unexceptional matchup against Dredge as listed but it can be improved pretty easily by shifting around cards to include Yixlid Jailer or other hate such as an additional Nihil Spellbomb. Keep in mind that Iona can be backbreaking against Dredge sometimes as you can “turn off” cards like Chain of Vapor with it meaning that Stormtide into Iona can effectively end the game on the spot. Nature's Claim and Strip Mine do double-duty against opposing Oath decks as well.
There are probably more improvements to be made to this archetype as time goes on but I think this is a powerful new deck and unbelievably fun to play.
I can't even explain how backbreaking Stormtide Leviathan is against a number of decks in the format right now…
It's hard to believe but this is my one-hundredth article for StarCityGames.com. I posted a quasi-accurate depiction of how I came to work for this website on YouTube but briefly I was playing mostly local tournaments and PTQs during 2008 into early 2009 when Extended season kicked in. At that point I was still drafting weekly and playing mostly PTQ formats. I have to imagine that the angle of old-timey player taking a decade break trying to get back to the PT back to the grind – that story arch might have held some interest. I'd been writing articles off and on for sites that posted community blogs in an article format and I guess something I wrote struck a chord as Craig asked if I was interested in writing for SCG. To say I was excited about this opportunity is an understatement.
That particular “hook” to the column didn't last long. I almost immediately bailed on the PTQ circuit (at this point having competed in exactly one since April 2009) and started focusing mostly on the Eternal formats. Nice little bait-and-switch right? Thankfully it seems to have worked out as there was very little quality free Vintage content being produced and Legacy exploded in popularity at around that time as well.
This gig almost didn't start in the first place. When Craig messaged me to come and write for this site I assumed it was one of my friends messing with me and asked Craig to jump through some hoops to prove he was who he said he was like some kind of paranoid maniac.
Regardless thanks to everyone who's read my work over the past two-plus years and I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it. If you're not a regular reader or haven't been the whole time here are twenty articles (in order of publication) among the hundred that I think are worth reading. You can reach your own conclusions as far as what that means as a writer's batting average…
In this article I discussed my thoughts on the role of proxies in the decline of interest in Vintage. This is one of the few articles that I really approached as a persuasive piece of writing. Often my goal is not to get you to believe what I'm saying but rather simply to think about things in a different light; this article is absolutely trying to sell you on my point of view one that I still mostly agree with today.
This is one of my more popular pieces and one that still gets cited on various forums around the internet. Of course other people – Rich Shay Owen Turtenwald and others – did all the heavy lifting here. However this is an example that shows that deck primers can be popular and valuable to the player base.
Although I didn't know him that well at this point I knew that Nick Detwiler knew considerably more about Workshops than I did so I asked him to guest-write an article for me. I never anticipated it would be this good.
A bad day at work and some frustrating testing sessions across formats led to this piece in which I poke fun at the major formats of Magic. When I wrote this I considered it a throwaway piece but it ended up being pretty popular.
I wrote this after my second time reading World War Z. I tend not to be a “flavor” guy (sorry Mr. Tait) but I did enjoy writing this one. I came back to Dredge many times throughout 2009 as both an advocate for the deck and a warning for others to be prepared for how good it actually was.
While I'd dabbled in Legacy writing previously; as of this article it became something I'd come back to repeatedly and intentionally. It was some time around this point that I realized that Legacy was an incredibly dynamic and exciting format populated by some really awesome people who love the game.
While not everyone enjoys these articles I think they're very valuable to those who take the time to read them as I discussed last week. This one tracks the evolution of one of the mainstays of the Legacy format.
Similar to the above article this one tracks the emergence of Legacy Zoo. This is also an article where I advocate the use of Price of Progress in a burn-heavy build of Zoo; in fact if you swap out Rift Bolt for Steppe Lynx the list I posted at the end of the article is extremely close to the one I used to win the SCG Legacy Open in Philly last year.
Remembrances and the Competitive Path
This article really makes me miss being a regular drafter. Reading it over I think it does a good job communicating my love for the game.
If I had only written this today I'd have published this as a for-pay eBook! In any case these articles came about due to the structure change at The Mana Drain. Major decks were given primers written by the community and I asked to write the Dredge one… and promptly got carried away blowing past 10000 words in total. I told you I really enjoy Dredge. While outdated in parts due to new printings I still consider this to be one of my most comprehensive and most useful pieces of writing.
With everyone else on the internet bashing Wild Nacatl I felt the need to write a rebuttal as Zoo had become one of my favorite Legacy decks by this point. I think Max took this in stride; while we often take opposing sides in articles I actually think we have many similar opinions about the format just expressed in different ways.
Another article I considered a throwaway this is one of my more-quoted pieces; I had no topic in mind when I sat down to write. I just spaced out and hammered away for a bit and this is what came out. I find this one amusing in that while I mostly ignore MTG “flavor” you can clearly see examples where the “flavor” in my writing is being colored by whatever I'm currently reading watching or hearing. Also love the hotdog eating contest bit in this one even though I know it makes me one of those crotchety Legacy people.
“Hey Todd! Get off my yard! Hyah!!”
I felt obligated to write this article at the time as Stephen Menendian was raging around on TMD taking my quotes out of context misstating my position repeatedly and generally frothing at the mouth like a drunken Bill O'Reilly at a wedding of two gay illegal immigrants officiated by President Obama and the cast of Glee. In his article that week he said “Matt Elias's ideas would take us back to a dark time in Vintage history…” Obviously the DCI did not agree. The policy I spoke of here is interesting to read at this juncture now that we've seen Gush safely come off the Restricted list and the follow-up explanation from the DCI at the time of that unrestriction almost exactly aligned with what I proposed in this piece.
This is the culmination of my earlier articles about Zoo. Winner winner chicken dinner!
Ignore the Reanimator stuff and just read the first bit. It's a tad mean-spirited perhaps but that whole thing couldn't have come together any better. Over time I came to realize my outrage wasn't really about Mystical Tutor itself but rather the “logic” used to explain why it needed to be banned. It reminds me of this classic Simpsons scene:
Lisa: They can't seriously expect us to swallow that tripe.
Skinner: Now as a special treat courtesy of our friends at the Meat Council please help yourself to this tripe!
[Class cheers and runs to table loaded with tripe.]
Another example of something I thought was a throwaway piece that ended up being one of my most popular articles. I have considered inserting “Chapin” into all of my article titles ever since.
Aww I love my wife! I only got one piece of hate mail on this article… seriously.
This article took forever to write and is one of my biggest disappointments in some respects. I really thought it would generate some positive feedback but it landed with a resounding thud. I meant it to be several things at once; the general tone is meant to be funny but the concepts are legitimate and useful to people who want to write about Magic and on top of that you get links to over a hundred of my favorite Magic articles from the past several years as well as some all-time classics on top. I wish this one had found an audience.
Speaking of things that took forever I spent an entire day working on this article but I'm really happy with the results.
Hope to do this again at article 200!